Meta Question

Why is no one willing to consider making the Ukraine a buffer state? The West gives up its idea to have it be a part of NATO and Russia allows the Ukraine to become, let’s call it, Finlandized.

Ask yourself that question. Look at the situation at large.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I have some ideas. I should not be surprised at Western/American recalcitrance and yet I still am, because the risks of this getting out of hand so far outweigh the rewards of having the Ukraine in the US orbit? When you think at it that way, it really is all about making sure Russia stays with its back against the wall.

I say all this as prefatory remarks to tonight’s Nelson Report which is just hard to digest.

SUMMARY: you don’t have to be a conservative or even a Republican to worry that Russia’s Putin is going to radically alter the “facts on the ground” in ways that strong, or stronger US/NATO action is already either too late, or simply irrelevant to head off. The Nelson Report generally loathes linkages like “perceived US weakness in Europe undermines faith in Asia”, but sometimes its unavoidable, especially with “POTUS” due out there for most of next week.

For now, Ukraine has asked the UN for support from peacekeeping troopsas it tries to stave off a revolt from pro-Russia protesters, seemingly reinforced (if not led) by thousands of “unmarked” Russian troops. Obviously this isn’t going to happen, with Moscow and Beijing on the Security Council.

But maybe that’s the idea…if Putin is capable of embarrassment. Why Kiev isn’t asking NATO? You experts please let us know. Meanwhile, notes the AP:

“A deadline set by the Ukrainian government for pro-Russian militants in the country’s east to vacate occupied buildings passed on Monday without signs of an effort to enforce it. Commandos who engaged in gunfights with men who had set up roadblocks stormed a Ukrainian police station in Slovyansk on Sunday, but there were no signs after the deadline passed at 9 a.m. Monday that they had attempted to approach the city again. Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine on Monday, a pro-Russian mob broke into a police station in the city of Horlivka, near the Russian border, The Associated Press reported.”

Following this, White House briefer Jay Carney cited “overwhelming evidence” that Russia is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but suggested that the President has not yet concluded that Putin’s actions warrant broader sanctions on key Russian economic sectors.

“We are actively evaluating what is happening in eastern Ukraine, what actions Russia has taken, what transgressions they’ve engaged in,” Carney said. “And we are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose.”

 The White House did confirm that CIA chief John Brennan visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev over the weekend, breaking with the administration’s practice of not disclosing the director’s travel, the AP notes. Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accused Brennan of being behind Ukraine’s decision to send troops into the east to try to quash an increasingly brazen pro-Russian insurgency.

While U.S. officials of course denied those accusations, confirmation of Brennan’s visit could provide fodder for Russian officials to create a pretext for further incursions into eastern Ukraine, the AP suggests. A high-ranking European Union official said foreign ministers did decideMonday to sanction more Russians with asset freezes and visa bans, though they appeared to stop short of the broader penalties on Russia’s economy.

Prior to today’s Obama/Putin phone conversation, the President promised there will be new consequences for Russia’s continued aggression…and said he’s sending VP Joe Biden out there in a couple of weeks. As many commentators note, the White House is facing something of the same dilemma that gobsmacked the UK’s David Cameron, when The City let him know just what real financial sanctions could cost the British economy.

Hummm…is it either fair, or relevant to parallel the collective US/European failure in Syria to what we’re now seeing in South Central Europe? Certainly the situation seems clear to the government in Kiev…from this afternoon’s National Journal summary:

UKRAINE ASKS U.N. TO SEND TROOPS: Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that the pro-Russia protesters in eastern Ukraine were “special units” sent by the Russian government. He vowed to take action and proposed a “joint operation with the U.N. peacekeeping forces.” (Lally/Englund, WaPo)

White House press release…if we get something on the Putin call we’ll send it right out. Meanwhile…

Readout of the President’s Call with President Hollande of France

President Obama spoke with French President Hollande today about the worsening situation in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists, seemingly with support and coordination from Moscow, have intensified their campaign to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian government.  The leaders underscored that Russia will face significant additional costs if it continues this behavior.  President Obama noted that the government of Ukraine has acted with great restraint and praised the Ukrainian government’s efforts to unify the country by holding free and fair presidential elections on May 25 and pursuing an inclusive constitutional reform process.  The two leaders also discussed ongoing cooperation in our bilateral relationship.

Please remember, I post the Nelson Report’s comments because Chris represents the centrist consensus in DC. This is not my position, obviously. It’s a window into the mindset in DC and it’s worrisome.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

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  • President Obama spoke with French President Hollande today about the worsening situation in eastern Ukraine

    Last time the French went so far east with a Grand Army it didn’t work out so well…

    While ignoring that the new Government in Kiev banned Russian…

    Making Russian speakers feel so very welcome…

    And now they wonder why the Russian specking people feel a little put upon. and don’t want to be a part of the country.

    Do they not understand, or not want to understand?

  • and then there is this from Spiegel, which confuses me further….

    ‘A Partner for Russia’: Europe’s Far Right Flirts with Moscow (snips)

    Right-wing populists stand to gain seats in the approaching European Parliament elections — which is good news for Moscow. Russia and the European right have been courting each other recently as mainstream Brussels has kept Moscow at arm’s length.

    Russian voices have been no less supportive. “We hope that the results of the coming elections will give these people more power,” says Sergey Markov, a conservative political scientist with close ties to the Kremlin. “We need to move forward to further develop this cooperation” with the European right.

    The parallels between the political stances of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and European right-wingers are as numerous as they are varied. Skepticism of immigration and a keen worry about the threat posed by Islamist extremism make Putin a natural ally for a xenophobic right whose political bread and butter is their vociferous attacks on European immigration policy. His heavy-handed leadership style and homophobic stance likewise don’t hurt.

    But it is European right-wing populists’ skepticism of the EU and the 28-member bloc’s close ties with the US which provides perhaps the broadest foundation for cooperation with Russia. Vassily Likhachev, a Russian parliamentarian who is deputy chair of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, blasted the EU at the conference last Wednesday, calling EU resolutions relating to the Ukraine crisis “shameful” and said it was “clear” that the protests in Kiev were “a project developed by NGOs in the United States.”

  • I think that question is obviated by a larger one, which is asking why do we need a buffer state between NATO and Russia? NATO is a useless war treaty organization which should have been disbanded when the cold war ended more than 20 years ago.

    • Jayhawk, NATO is past its sell-by date, no doubt. But which one is more likely: an agreement for the Ukraine to be a buffer state or the disbandment of NATO?

      • Again, why do we need a “buffer state?” The cold war is gone, and all of Omama’s and Kerry’s posturing is not going to restart it. Putin does not have designs on conquering Europe.

        • Why do we need a buffer state? Is it not patently obvious? The US wants to extend NATO to Russias border? Russia does not want this. A war is about to start because of it. Those are objective factors that are happening in real time. What real time pragmatic solution that has a real chance of happening do you propose?

          We have to deal with the world we have, not the world we want.

  • I think Jayhawk’s question was why do we in U.S. and E.U. need a buffer state when it is our outlandish ambitions that cause the problem in the first place.

    Your solution looks more like creating a point of friction rather than a buffer and presupposes a conflict the necessity for which from our standpoint is essentially bogus.

    • Okay, so what solution do you propose that is in the real of possibility? Real policy, not some fantastic idea that we’ll just disband NATO which is not going to happen. I’d personal like to prevent a war and chaos in the Ukraine. A buffer state gets that done. But I’m definitely open to other suggestions that will work in the real world. Again, the solution has to be in the context of workability in the present environment, not an idea that, while definitely better for the long term, has absolutely no chance of being enacted in the near term. Give me a real world solution? And how can pulling the two parties apart create a point of friction when it is designed to pull them apart? I don’t understand that. How is my idea worse that what is happening now? Good grief.

  • We are talking past each other here. You are of course right that once the purely bogus claims of the West are accepted, probably the best possibility is an agreement to “neutralize” the Ukraine. However, once you accept those bogus interests as not going away and then recognize Russia’s interests as well then even a “neutral” Ukraine will be a bone of contention to be fought over endlessly through the sort of means we have already seen – subversion, appropriation and a few killings here and there (cold war style). Although your buffer state appears to be the most “reasonable” answer it is no more workable given what you demand as the givens, than anything else as long as neither side will back down from their givens. The Russians won’t and frankly shouldn’t given recent history and we should and won’t. But, and we are back to the original question which is why are we making this happen when we don’t need to except as Synoia points out above it is for some of the worst possible reasons on earth.

    • HVD: fair enough. I can’t dispute any of your reasoning in that last comment. Sadly, you are right as my scenario is pretty much just as unworkable as anything else. And so, we trudge down the road of unhappy and deadly destiny.

  • To clarify further. A buffer zone solution is only a temporary band aid when we insist on defining the world in a way that precludes any competition of any sort whatsoever from any one. Your “solution” will only be taken as a sort of victory by our war mongers who will continue pivoting and adjusting and fighting military and commercial wars with everyone in the world until they bow to our perverse feudal impulses. You know where all of this leads and it is not a pretty sight.

    I am beginning to think that the world needs a Churchill to finally make a stand against us. Appeasement does not work when your opponent only knows winner take all. We are the heirs of Lombardi in a world where winning is definitely not the only thing.

  • So let me see if I get group consensus right… NATO is useless as a military alliance, but the threat it presents explains Russian actions.

    Something doesn’t sound quite right here.

      • When you say that NATO is past its sell-by date and discuss the notion of disbanding it in a context that implies this would be a desirable option were it possible, what then are you saying?

        • Dave: in the context of the last ten years of me writing and pontificating here at The Agonist I think you know my views on NATO pretty well. NATO in its current incarnation doesn’t work, so yeah, I’ll say it and own it: it’s pretty much a useless alliance AS USED presently. It doesn’t make any sense.

          Now, the old NATO, the core: keeping the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in, well, that worked. But today the Russians are way, way out and they aren’t getting any of their old Warsaw Pact allies back any time soon. So, the Americans are in and the Germans, well, who knows what the Germans are doing, aside from taking over Europe economically.

          But a NATO that is treaty bound to defend Estonia from a Russian invasion? Really? I know that horse has left the barn. But adding the Ukraine and Georgia to it? Do you honestly think that is a good idea?

          The biggest danger I see with NATO is that most citizens, pundits, regular folks and some politicians who don’t know any better, see it as a big political club they all want to be a part of without realizing that if Lithuania gets invaded by Russia the entire alliance has to go to war with Russia immediately. I just don’t think people thought that through well enough. So, yeah, not only is it useless in its current incarnation, it’s dangerous too.

          • If nothing else, the presence of NATO will deter Russia from invading Lithuania. Russia isn’t stupid – it knows the consequences. In the age of nuclear warfare, everyone understands that everyone is potentially doomed – the invaders as well as the invaded.

          • To be honest, there’s a lot less detail to your views apparent to the reader than you might believe. Expansion, bad. Out of area operations, bad. Beyond that, there’s not much. I’m sure there’s more to it and that I could find more if I went back and carefully parsed, but the “good” side of the alliance hasn’t exactly been highlighted.

            The challenge that I have with your views, at their root, is that you seem to be viewing this through American eyes and generalizing those views to all alliance members. For Americans, expansion has the lowest marginal gains – and they decline with each new member and can end up being marginal losses, as you properly highlight. That isn’t so true for other members, particularly the more recent ones. A lot of the traditional European members seem to be pretty sure that they can dominate the alliance in the new century, and with an America that keeps reflexively doing the heavy lifting the alliance is even more attractive. In large part they can have their cake and eat it too. As an example, Europeans can keep having their domestically lucrative side projects in defence procurement and hedge by maintaining the ability to play the alliance card if they are technologically overtaken.

            Similarly, they can have their cake and eat it too when it comes to out of area operations. Individual members don’t have to bear the full cost of expensive assets like heavy air transport, almost any aspect of C5ISR you’d care to name, or a whole raft of other things. And beyond the communally held assets, there’s even more stuff that other alliance members like America will provide if they’re really serious about an operation. Only thing that you have to do if you’re a junior member is to periodically detach a company to West Bumfuckistan, and even then you can caveat its ROE up the wazoo – and if you’re a senior member, you have even more leverage! You can pick the most favourable AO, fuck even that up (and they did), and no one is going to call you on it, because – Alliance. For these guys, what’s not to love about all this?

            As to the central issue of the mutual defence obligation, I guess it comes down to this: do you think Russia is more likely to try military operations against a country like Estonia in the context of it being a NATO member, or less? Me, I go with less – very substantially less. The specific history, the nature of the power balance, and the basis of domestic power in these countries guarantees that there’s going to be friction between them and Russia – I would far more likely that such conflict occur in a framework that has some potential of damping it, rather than a free-for-all. Our challenge is to keep the junior members from acting as if membership gives them license to act in more risky ways than they would otherwise. The higher risk automatically constrains Russia – the question that we should be asking is what are the equivalent constraints on new members? There’s a range of them, but I think we should be really careful what we wish for when we talk about the diminished value of NATO, as I can easily see a scenario where their effectiveness actually decreases with faith in the alliance. Similarly, given your particular foreign policy orientation, I think you should be quite wary of what an America unconstrained by the need to service these alliance ties might do. The stuff that’s been the riskiest over the past decade is also the stuff that’s been the least multilateral – and some of the multilateral has been a pretty thin veneer.

            The part that I agree with is that we need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of expansion in the face of clear signalling that the associated costs are significantly higher. However, the fact that costs are higher now doesn’t change the fact that previously it was significantly more attractive and that we shouldn’t give up what we got. Additionally, I think we need to be very careful in how we act and that it’s in our interest to take a speak softly and carry a big stick approach – while quietly making it clear that clearly visible restraint doesn’t translate to license for indefinite escalation.

  • You are just making up the “NATO is useless as a military alliance,” premise. But now that you bring it up I would have to say they are not useless as a military alliance, witness Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya, but they are pretty useless at justifying their usefulness. They are also pretty effective as economic warriors as well but here their purpose, unless it is merely domination, is perfectly unclear as well.

    • Yes indeed, when people say that NATO is “a useless war treaty organization” and I characterize that as saying that NATO is useless as a military alliance I’m clearly making things up.

      • But of course you were unable to understand that particular context. “NATO is a useless war treaty organization which should have been disbanded when the cold war ended more than 20 years ago.” That was plainly not suggesting that NATO was powerless as you transformed it but was referring in context to the change from an organization formed for defensive purposes in light of a perceived threat from the former Soviet Union into one whose purpose is unclear. No one but no one other than you has suggested that NATO is powerless rather the suggestion has been that in the absence of its former mission it now casts about wildly disrupting, destroying, attempting to dominate any number of countries for purposes (if it has any other than assuring its own continuing existence) that are quite insane.

        Given your general arrogance I would assume that you could read better. Straw men like this really don’t advance any discussion. If you want to disagree why don’t you actually disagree with someone here rather than make stuff up to win points. If you want to argue that NATO actually serves an important purpose, that Russia poses dangers to the NATO alliance and must be aggressively contained even to the point of setting off a civil war or more general war then do so.

        And by the way Sean Paul did not make that “useless war treaty organization” statement, it was Jayhawk. Why don’t you pick a fight with him, even if it is out of context. Fight fair.

        • You seem to be labouring under some misconception here. We’re not fighting. We’re trying to achieve a better understanding of things. Me, I want people – yourself included – to spend time on something a little more thoughtful than throwing around Internet buzzwords, which from where I’m sitting is most of what’s been happening to this point. To say that NATO should have been disbanded on the end of the cold war is to speak with today’s worldview, ignoring what was happening at the time – in other words, entirely ahistorical.

          As to the rest of it, frankly fuck it. You greatly over-estimate my interest in scoring points on the Intertubez. Please continue your minutely differentiated, doctrinaire engagingly diverse discussion amongst yourselves.

  • Dave, you really are elusive. You start here by attempting to debunk the discussion by positing some sort of internal illogic i.e. NATO is useless (powerless) but Russia is only responding to this useless entity – something wrong here.

    When I point out that no one argues that NATO is powerless you decide to argue that we are all a bunch of fools arguing that NATO should have been disbanded. As I pointed out to you only one person suggested that and that was not the thrust of the argument here.

    Why is it that we are babbling but you have some sort of insight which you refuse to share. Convince me that I am wrong. Don’t play bad logic games and then pick up your ball and go home when you are called on it.

    Dave what is it you are trying to say?

    • Where is it that you come from that you expect the guy that you call arrogant and say is advancing straw men and playing bad logic games to spend his scarce time engaging you? It must be idyllic.

      Here’s the central rub – I don’t think I can convince you of anything on this issue. Given that I don’t care about scoring points, that makes further time invested here entirely worthless. If you care about points, please consider yourself to have won the Internet for today. (If that increases your happiness, then I guess the time I spent typing this little missive isn’t entirely worthless – so here’s hoping it does.)

      • I’m just trying to figure out what it is that you disagree with and what it is that you would convince me of if I were worthy of your effort. I have been known to change my mind and or position when presented with evidence to the contrary. I have read things of yours that I found convincing and interesting in the past hence my disappointment when you take the path that you have taken here.

        • Let me suggest that if you wish to convince a dialogue partner that you are open to changing your mind, the approach that you have taken – to call him arrogant, to suggest that he is advancing straw men and engaging in poor logic tricks – has significant flaws.

          As to what I disagree with here, frankly much. We’ve seen a number of notions advanced upthread:

          NATO is a useless war treaty organization which should have been disbanded when the cold war ended more than 20 years ago – Jayhawk

          When the cold war ended NATO continued their mission. Containing Russia. – Synoia
          Which was necessary because? – hvd

          When the USSR folded, NATO changed from a defensive organization to an offensive one, aiming at expanding the power & reach of the American Hegemon. – Steeleweed

          NATO was never about defense after WW II. It contains at its core an obligation for mutual war. – Synoia

          NATO is past its sell-by date, no doubt. But which one is more likely: an agreement for the Ukraine to be a buffer state or the disbandment of NATO? – Sean-Paul

          The cold war is gone, and all of Omama’s and Kerry’s posturing is not going to restart it. Putin does not have designs on conquering Europe. – Jayhawk

          One narrative thread here is that it is taken as self-evident that NATO’s reason for being was countering Russia and that the validity of this motivation disappeared once the Cold War ended.

          Well, me, I tend to be somewhat more skeptical. I remember analysis that for the better part of a decade kept making reference to the possibility of hard-liners coming back into power in Russia, the potential danger of loose nukes and a whole raft of things reflecting what a truly scary neighbourhood it was there. I remember watching Yugo grind up my country’s army and how concerned we all were that, please *God*, none of the other artificial constructs that had previously been damped down by membership in that security architecture should fragment in the same bloody way or start pummelling each other. I remember how engagement with former Warsaw Pact countries seemed like a really good idea at the time. More than anything, I remember how then engagement ended with *them* coming to NATO wanting in. If the need to counter Russia ended with the Cold War, no one told them. Secondarily, from our perspective, even if we’re not sold on the need to counter Russia, at least we don’t have have former Warsaw Pact members loosely rattling around Europe unconstrained. This seems like an even better idea, given how we’ve watched Ukraine yobbo all this. If it has absolutely no other value, NATO is at least a framework to keep a bunch of countries that, with monotonous regularity, used to engage in some pretty concentrated intramural bloodletting from continuing to do that.

          Another thread is that NATO is a framework for advancing American hegemony and/or offensive action. I have to say, if that’s the case, it’s about the least effective, most wasteful such framework I’ve ever seen. Me, cynical bastard that I am, I think it’s a lot more accurate to call it a framework for inter-state competition, with as much free-riding as possible. Various countries – including the US – use it to their own ends and they try to do so as cheaply as possible. The US has a large role, but to treat it as if it is the only significant player – I have to say that’s not what it looks like to me. Looks a lot more to me like they’ve been taken for a ride for an extended period and that they are only now (e.g., Libya and Syria) starting to not reflexively do the heavy lifting for everyone. Similarly, a lot of the current stuff that folks are viewing as out of area operations aren’t viewed that way in European capitals.

          A last thread lurks only in the background, implicit but seldom seen. All of our reflexes and assumptions harken back to the Cold War, without testing them against how things have changed. I’m pretty unconvinced. As an example, the notion seems to be that Russia primarily sees all this through an “Abrams, Challengers, LeClercs, and Leopard IIs on the very borders of the motherland” lens. I really don’t think so – this is old school inter-state competition. They’re far, far less concerned about Ukraine being a jump off point for invasion than they are that NATO members can’t easily be Finlandized, making their competition much more difficult. They’re concerned about this for exactly the same reason the Israelis are really concerned about Iran developing a nuclear capability – it means that they would no longer control the escalation ladder. With an isolated Ukraine, they decide where conflict stops and what measures are acceptable. With an integrated Ukraine, they don’t (which is, BTW, something that cuts both ways and why we should be terrified of integrating with Ukraine – they’re already trying to write cheques that get cashed with our ass). Similarly, when push comes to shove, I think everyone in NATO cares a whole hell of a lot less about Ukraine than about what Ukraine might mean for recent and ongoing expansion elsewhere.

          Now, if folks want to argue that NATO has *badly* handled a lot of issues, including but not limited to expansion, out of zone operations, etc. etc. And if they further want to argue that there’s a strong thread of “self-fulfilling prophecy” in their relations with Russia, then I am right there with you. But this notion that we don’t need a NATO and that it’s so bad that it’s counter-productive? Not so down with that.

          • Now that is more like it. Thank you.

            We are totally in agreement with respect to your last paragraph the others not so much. I wish I could provide some good argument where I disagree but I am finding it very difficult to properly articulate why I find the concept of Alliance in the absence of any real challenge to it disturbing. It seems like trouble waiting to happen, a gang with nothing to do. Gangs make the street meaner. The “decent people” hide, the one’s of dubious character join to get ahead. Something like that.

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